Ever thought that your comfy cotton T-shirt could monitor your heart rate and breathing, analyse your sweat and even cool you off on a hot summer's day? Or have you thought of a pillow that monitors your brain waves, or a solar-powered dress that can charge your ipod or MP4 player? Well, all this could soon be a reality, all thanks to new-age cotton threads.
The laboratory of Juan Hinestroza, assistant professor of Fiber Science and Apparel Design, has developed cotton threads that can conduct electric current as well as a metal wire can, yet remain light and comfortable enough to give a whole new meaning to multi-use garments.
The technology works so well that simple knots in such specially treated thread can complete a circuit.
Using multidisciplinary nanotechnology, the researchers developed a technique to permanently coat cotton fibers with electrically conductive nanoparticles.
"We can definitively have sections of a traditional cotton fabric becoming conductive, hence a great myriad of applications can be achieved," said Hinestroza.
"The technology developed by us and our collaborators allows cotton to remain flexible, light and comfortable while being electronically conductive. Previous technologies have achieved conductivity but the resulting fiber becomes rigid and heavy. Our new techniques make our yarns friendly to further processing such as weaving, sewing and knitting," he added.
The technology is beyond the theory stage.
Hinestroza's student, Abbey Liebman, was inspired by the technology enough to design a dress that actually uses flexible solar cells to power small electronics from a USB charger located in the waist.
The charger can power a smartphone or an MP3 player.
"Instead of conventional wires, we are using our conductive cotton to transmit the electricity -- so our conductive yarns become part of the dress. Cotton used to be called the 'fabric of our lives' but based on these results, we can now call it 'The fabric of our lights,'" said Hinestroza.
In fact, solar-powered dress with this technology literally woven into its fabric will be featured at the annual Cornell Design League Fashion Show at Cornell University's Barton Hall.